Monday, December 29, 2014

Aubrey Plaza Film Career in Fits and Starts with The To Do List

Aubrey Plaza is one of the main reasons I have continued watching Parks and Recreation all these years. She's now making the leap to movies and it seemed like the first place I should start is The To Do List, which got fairly positive reviews.

She plays Brandy Clarke, a high-school valedictorian who is inexperienced in many ways. Based on all the things her more experienced sister and mother tell her, she creates a to-do list of sex moves to perform during the summer before college, culminating in going all the way with cheeseball hottie and lifeguard rocker Rusty Waters, played pretty hilariously by Scott Porter of Jason Street fame in TV's Friday Night Lights. Her conservative, Rush Limbaugh-leaning judge dad is also pretty funny, although nowhere near the league of Ted Knight's high-bar-setting Judge Smails in Caddyshack.

Despite the all-star cast, including Bill Hader, Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton, and Andy Samburg, not many laughs stick, and some bits, like the Beaches song and Caddyshack poop-in-the-pool take-offs, are plain painful to watch.

Plaza's movie career is starting in fits and starts. Safety Not Guaranteed was good but not great. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was pretty average, and I don't think I can even consider watching Life After Beth.

Get it together April Ludgate. Parks and Recreation is about to end.

**1/2 out of ***** stars

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Yo La Tengo Digs Deep into Songlist for 30th Anniversary Show

I hadn't seen Hoboken, New Jersey's finest, Yo La Tengo since the mid-90s, when they played in St. Louis on the Painful tour (still their best album) and also in an intimate setting in the basement of Washington University's student center, where leader Ira Kaplan proceeded to pound his keyboard with precision and play guitar solos like Jimi Hendrix.

I loved the band's early albums like May I Sing With Me and New Wave Hot Dogs. But I haven't been all that into their less poppy, more spacey releases of the past decade-and-a-half.

That's why this special "Yo La Tengo at 30" tour in only New York, Philadelphia, and D.C. appeared to be the perfect show. A career-spanning set rather than a show that would focus on the new stuff. And the band didn't disappoint, especially at the start of the night.

"Ohm," the one great song from their newest album, began the show churning at just the right pace. Then "Double Dare" from Painful soared with its diving guitar parts. Their loud-soft dynamic was displayed with a few numbers, including "Beanbag Chair" from Electropura.

The full house was then treated to oldies like "Lewis" from New Wave Hot Dogs, "The Pain of Pain" from debut Ride the Tiger, and "Satellite" from May I Sing With Me.

Late in the show, when Kaplan wasn't doing his patented freak outs, highlights included covers of "Little Honda" by the Beach Boys and "Take Care" by Big Star, along with original "Autumn Sweater."

This was by no means a best-of setlist, but it also displayed just how deep and enjoyable Yo La Tengo's catalog is over its 30-year life thus far.

Lambchop opened and convincingly played its brand of slow, mostly-quiet folk.

**** out of ***** stars

Photo by Peter Hutchins.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cate Blanchett Cracks Up in Blue Jasmine

For last year's Blue Jasmine, Director Woody Allen was clearly inspired by the whole Bernie Madoff financial mess. It's a dramedy about a woman named Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) whose mental state is collapsing from years of fooling herself into thinking her husband (Alec Baldwin) is a good and honest man.

At the start of the film, Jasmine is leaving her once-lavish life in New York to go live with her distant sister in San Francisco. It opens as she is trying to rationalize her living-in-denial life to a complete stranger in the airport. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how she got to this point as she tries to pull it back together out west. 

Some critics said the movie is Allen's dig at his ex-wife Mia Farrow, with whom he has had an ugly, lengthy, public falling out. Whatever the case, Blanchett is nothing short of spellbinding as a cracked person. It's no wonder she won just about every best-actress trophy last year, including the Oscar.

As for where Blue Jasmine fits within my list of Woody Allen's best films, I say it's his eighth best, right after Vicky Christina Barcelona and before Everyone Says I Love You.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Pop Culture Ephemera: 4-Star Books and Films That Everyone Has Already Seen

Here are a few items I've seen and read in the past several months.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - Yes, I know, I'm the last person in the world to get around to reading the first Harry Potter book. At least I saw the movie version years ago. But my excuse is that I was waiting to read it with Jackson, who was six last summer when we read it.

It's tough to argue against a book that seems to have improved literacy among an entire generation of kids. And it is a very entertaining book, although I was a little disappointed that more didn't happen in the story. It feels like author J.K. Rowling wanted to spread the plot out a little thin over the entire series to come.

The evil Lord Voldemort kills James and Lily Potter. Son Harry is orphaned to the terrible Dursley family. Ten years later, Hagrid saves him and takes him to Hogwarts wizard school. Harry makes friends with Ron and Hermione and becomes a star Quidditch player. At the end, Dumbledore tells Harry that his mother sacrificed her life to save Harry, and Voldemort didn't understand such a thing as this - love.

**** out of ***** stars

The Road - I also read and loved this Cormac McCarthy novel (my #56 all-time favorite) about a father and his son attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world gone mad. In the movie version from 2009, they walk down endless roads, just trying to survive, find food, and avoid flesh-eating gangs. It is unbearably sad, but probably as poignant an apocalypse movie as has ever been created. Anyone who's ever known the power of a father-son bond can't help but be moved.

**** out of ***** stars

Daddy Day Care - I had no expectations when I started watching this kids film, but then I got into it almost immediately and loved it by the end. I mean, really, how wrong can you go with Eddie Murphy, Jeff Garlin, and a bunch of cute kids?

Murphy is a marketing exec who gets laid off and, unhappy with his son's daycare run by Anjelica Huston, starts his own with fellow marketer Garlin.

You could do much worse watching a movie with your kids.

**** out of ***** stars